Tuesday September 15th, 2009

The U.S. has produced some world-class goalkeepers over the years, none more accomplished than Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller, two ageless lions who are still prowling the pipes at, respectively, Aston Villa and Seattle. But if there's one American who reminds me the most of Hatch, the fearless Allied keeper played by Sylvester Stallone in Victory, it's Tim Howard.

Chosen as the top goalkeeper at the Confederations Cup in June, Howard kept the Americans in the game against Brazil in the final, making save after acrobatic save before the Brazilians finally pushed through for a 3-2 come-from-behind victory. As the U.S. closes in on a World Cup berth, needing only two points from two qualifiers next month (or just a tie in the finale against Costa Rica), this much has become clear: If Howard is playing well, then the Allies -- whoops, the Americans -- always have a chance.

For me, at least, it's hard to believe that Howard is now 30 years old, or that six years have passed since he burst onto the global soccer scene as an unknown 24-year-old Jersey guy with Tourette's syndrome who somehow leaped from MLS to the starting gig at Manchester United. (For more gratuitous Victory references, check out my 2003 story on Howard.)

Howard didn't stay with Manchester United, but since joining Everton in '06, he has been one of the Premiership's steadiest goalkeepers, helping the Toffees finish fifth last season while also reaching the FA Cup final (thanks to a couple big penalty saves by Howard against Man. United in the semifinals).

Howard should be in the goal when Everton plays its first game in the Europa League group stage against AEK Athens on Thursday. Last week I sat down with the U.S.' first-choice keeper in Port of Spain, Trinidad, where we discussed the U.S. World Cup qualifying effort, the three most dangerous forwards he has faced and Howard's contention that U.S. goalkeeping isn't what it used to be. Here's an edited version of our interview:

SI.com: How do you feel about how World Cup qualifying has gone?

Howard: I think it's gone pretty much according to plan if I look back over the years, particularly as a spectator. I remember a lot of times watching the team do pretty much exactly what we're doing, being really good in certain areas and then having tough stretches. I can remember a game in D.C. when we got beat, when Brad Friedel was in goal and Tyson Núñez scored two goals and we were supposed to win the game [a 3-2 loss to Honduras in '01]. All that crazy stuff happens in qualifying. It's so hard for the people on the outside to understand, whether it's friends of mine back in England or people in America, that World Cup qualifying is so difficult. The goal, at the end of the day, is to qualify. It's not a one-game deal, it's an 18-game deal, and right now it's a 10-game issue.

SI.com: You've never played in a World Cup. Have you imagined what it would be like?

Howard: Yeah, because I've been there. I was alongside Kasey [in '06] and worked really closely with him in preparation for the games. If you take the label away, the World Cup is just another massive set of games, games that are unbelievably high-level, with a lot of hype surrounding it with the media, a lot of attention from the world. I feel like, at 30, I have played in a lot of those games. Now, if we get to the World Cup and hopefully I'm fortunate to be on the field, yeah, it'll be the World Cup, so it'll be a different stage. But the fans are going to be the same, the media attention is going to be the same as I've experienced along the way in my career. I'm hoping all that experience helps me. I think it will. I think it has over the last few years, particularly the past three years since Bob Bradley has taken over the team. Those experiences have helped me grow.

SI.com: Sometimes it's hard to remember that you're 30 years old now. As you get older, in what ways have you evolved as a goalkeeper?

Howard: It's funny, because when you're a young goalkeeper you don't want to hear any of it: Just pay your dues, you'll get your turn, you'll get more experience. But here I am -- 28, 29, now 30 -- and I always say, I am who I am right now. If you want something different, you're going to have to get another goalkeeper. It's going to be very hard to teach me new tricks. I mean that in a really positive way. I'm very happy with the goalkeeper I've become. It's such a weird thing, because you don't realize it. Here I was, 22, and people are saying, "You'll get better, you'll get more experience. Look at Brad and Kasey." And all of the sudden, eight or nine years go by and then you're that experienced guy. And you're thinking, "What has actually changed?"

I just think you become more comfortable with your surroundings. For me as a goalkeeper, I stopped going to look for things. You see a lot of young goalkeepers trying to run out and make plays. I did that a lot when I was younger. I've learned to just be more patient and sit back and let the game come to me. That has basically been my confidence saying when the play does come to me I'm going to be ready, willing and able, and capable to deal with it. Whereas when you're younger you're thinking, "Oh, the closer they get to the goal, the more chance they're going to score, so I'm just going to go and make things happen."

Another thing that may sound silly, but when you talk about goalkeeping, your angle plays get so much better. You look at Friedel and some of the best goalkeepers in the world, when a striker comes into the box and they take up an angle, it's almost like there's no chance of beating them because their angles are so good. That's based on experience, on seeing shooters at the highest levels coming in at certain positions and knowing where they're going to go.

SI.com: You've played against a lot of great forwards over the years at the club and international levels. If you had to rate the top three most dangerous ones, who would they be, and why?

Howard: I had the fortune of playing with a few of them at Man. United, but I won't count those because I trained with them. Certainly over the last few years, it's been Fernando Torres. I think he's been one of the top in the world. He's got speed, and he's got a great sense for the goal, which all great strikers have. The craziest thing about Torres is that as silky smooth as he is, he's a scrapper as well. When he gets in the box, it's like you don't think this flashy guy is going to get in there. And he sticks his feet in, he sticks his head in. He knows as he gets closer to the goal the importance of really fighting and battling. He seems to always hit the target, and he hits it with pace, which makes it really difficult for a goalkeeper.

Definitely Didier Drogba. As a soccer player, he's the prototype. He's one of the stronger guys you'll ever come up against. You talk about pace and athletic ability, he's at the top. I don't think anyone is better than him in any of those categories. When he hits the ball, he hits it a ton. He rarely ever side-foots it or rolls it. When he hits it, he smashes it. That's difficult for a goalkeeper because you know it's not going to be easy. You're not going to be able to just fingertip one. You're really going to have to get everything behind it. His goal-scoring record speaks for itself.

And of course Thierry Henry, who I played against not nearly as often as other guys. But early in my career was when I think he was probably at his best for Arsenal and that undefeated team in '04. He was just a guy who, more than any of those guys, commanded so much respect. Very rarely were defenders going to get up against him because you thought, "I don't want to give away a foul. The referee's probably going to give him a foul, and he'll probably skin me if I get too close."

He had pace, but he wasn't nearly as physical or rumble-tumble as those other guys. But he knew where the holes were. He was almost like a phantom. He just popped up. He got in between defenders and pulled out wide. Obviously, he was a center forward, but next thing you know he's pulled out wide and he's got your right back one-on-one because he loved to pull out to the right side. With all of these guys, they have a nose for the goal.

SI.com: For a long time, it seemed like there would be this endless pipeline of U.S. goalkeepers over playing club ball at the highest levels in Europe. Not so much the last of couple years. Why is that? Is there a sense that maybe this was just a special generation of U.S. goalkeepers that you were on the young side of?

Howard: Yeah. I think you're saying what a lot of people have been thinking for a long time. You had Brad and Kasey, so they all got lumped together. Brad and Kasey were two individuals who were very good and made a heck of a living for themselves overseas. But a lot of people decided to lump U.S. goalkeepers into that category: "You've got world-class goalkeepers, and as soon as one comes here comes the next one!" It was "a pipeline."

But that was never really the issue. You had two guys who were outstanding. That was it, really. I was fortunate to go over at the tail end of that, but I wasn't really in that generation. They're 10 years older than me. Brad Guzan has gone over, and I think he'll have a long career in Europe. He'll be one of the good ones. But it's very few goalkeepers out of many.

Is it an issue now? I think the issue has always been there. You had one, two, three individuals who have gone over and made a mark. Marcus Hahnemann has done pretty well for himself, too. But I don't think it was necessarily American goalkeepers getting selected by a European coach because this is what they're like. I think it was just a couple individuals. I certainly think goalkeeping has gone down in this country across the board, from the youth level going up. I don't think the trainings are nearly as good when you talk about the goalkeeper training I got coming up as a young kid.

SI.com: You're busy these days with Everton playing in the Premier League and the Europa League. How are things on that side right now?

Howard: I'm feeling good about things. It's a club that I believe in, and that's not just lip service. I believe in everything we're trying to accomplish. That doesn't just come out in stretches of a couple games. I've had the belief over the course of the last two and a half years. We've been habitually slow starters, which sucks. No one likes that. You go into preseason and work your tail off so it doesn't happen, but it happened. Last year was probably one of the best club years of my career for Everton, and it was almost a carbon-copy start of this year. It's not fun, but I think we're going in the right direction.

The crazy thing going into our season is our best three players are injured until October or November. [He was referring to Mikael Arteta, Phil Jagielka and Aiyegbeni Yakubu, but captain Phil Neville injured knee ligaments on Sunday against Fulham and could miss several months.] Any team in the league is going to suffer because of that. Not that we're saying things are all of the sudden going to be magically better when they get back. But those are big players for us. A club like ours doesn't have an abundance of money, so it's important that we have those players come back. I'm a firm believer that once the performances start coming, then the results will -- not the other way around.

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